Patient Zero: The Battle for Music Exclusives Heats Up

  • Share
  • Read Later

This post is in partnership with, which is the first publication for music fans that’s dedicated to music appsThe article below was originally published at

Before a piece of music is everywhere, it is nowhere.

At one magical point in between, new music appears on the internet for the very first time, in a certain, specific place. This moment has always been rich with significance. And now, everyone from Apple iTunes to the New York Times to NPR is looking to make that moment pay in ways that omnipresent music — already on YouTube, SoundCloud, download stores, subscription services, internet radio, bit torrent, hard drives, sneakernet, satellite radio — does not.

When a disease outbreak occurs, contagious disease experts refer to the person who started it all “patient zero,” or at least that’s what they are called in movies about contagious disease experts. This is the afflicted person who gets on a plane with bird flu and brings the disease to a new region, or even the first person ever to come down with a new malady.

New music premiered on the internet is sort of like that, except it’s good for everybody involved.

The websites and services that function as “patient zero” experience a rash of traffic and loads of exposure to new people, some of whom might bookmark the site, subscribe, follow it on Twitter or Facebook, or even (shudder) buy something. Bands that are in demand can haggle for special treatment and promotions, like having their name splashed across the front of a site for a specific length of time, which could lead to outright bidding wars as this trend progresses. Meanwhile, fans just want to hear the new release, and will go anywhere to get it, which is why this works out so well for the first two parties.

In dramatic late ’90s San Francisco, when we all knew everything was changing forever (and we were right), I remember theorizing in a since-deleted CNET MP3 Insider column that in a world where copies are free and perfect, they have no inherent value as salable objects. As a result, I supposed, maybe it only makes sense to sell the original, once, and then basically give up on trying to monetize the copies.

That was going too far, obviously. It’s 2013, and you can still sell or rent copies of music.

Nonetheless, the idea that music is worth more to people’s attention at the moment it appears on the internet — before all of those copies get made — is totally sound (and has been for years), especially when so many music services contain basically the same set of music.

I expect this sort of thing to happen more and more, and even for non-musical entities like retailers and advertisers to compete for red-hot outliers before they fade into the general corpus of music that is available everywhere. Here’s what a few of these musical “Patient Zeroes” are doing to become the place where various slices of the population come to encounter viruses they desperately want to be infected by.

This list is surely incomplete, but you get the idea, hopefully, that this is a thing:

Apple iTunes

Apple and Daft Punk won the internet recently with the pre-release album stream for the French electronic duo’s new Random Access Memories album, and David Bowie released his big comeback album, The Next Day, there too. ITunes makes a boatload of sense as a “patient zero,” because as fans listen to the stream, they can pre-order the album right there, from iTunes. Apple’s upcoming iTunes Radio, currently in beta, will offer exclusive and pre-release music too, starting this fall, giving artists another reason to pick Apple.

The New York Times

The New York Times launched a new thing called Press Play last month, which debuts at least one brand new album per week. “Listen here exclusively,” the Old Gray Lady proudly proclaims.

National Public Radio

My pals at NPR have been at this for quite a while, landing so many album launch exclusives on their First Listen section that we had to interview them about it.


The popular freemium on-demand music service debuted the chart-topping Daft Punk single “Get Lucky” in April. Last November, the band Cazzette became the first band to release an album exclusively on Spotify, forever, which goes well beyond the concept of an album premiere.


The critically-acclaimed on-demand streaming service Rdio has debuted 150 exclusive releases to date, like this one from Paramore, which also contained two tracks that appear on no other legit service. The Rdio Sessions program even sees Rdio pulling a DayTrotter and recording some of the music itself.


Rhapsody, the longest-running on-demand music subscription, has offered exclusives from everyone from Green Day to Ha Ha Tonka. Now, the field is getting a little more crowded.

The Guardian

This British publication has a section called “Listening Post” (not to be confused with one of my Twitter accounts), which streams complete albums — some of them exclusives.


Billboard, an syndication partner, premieres exclusive releases in like this one its Pop Shop section (with the audio streamed by SoundCloud).

Rolling Stone

Like Billboard, Rolling Stone relies on SoundCloud to serve up album premieres for album premieres like this compilation of Bob Marley remixes that was released today.


Everything on DayTrotter is an exclusive.

Wolfgang’s Concert Vault

Everything on Concert Vault is an exclusive too.


In its Advance sectionPitchfork debuts a wide variety of Pitchfork-approved bands (nevermind that they sometimes un-approve those same albums just days later [Transparency: that’s my brother’s and cousin’s band]).

Where is this trend leading? It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to imagine that at some point, the majority of new releases are premiered somewhere exclusively, with the band sending all of their fans to that place to hear it for the first time in return for… well, something, depending on how much people want to hear that music.

It’s also not too hard to imagine a cottage industry emerging around matching up these bands with the premiere outlets, be they newspapers, magazines, and music services, as in the above examples, or even — in return for varying sums of money — the websites of airlines, beverage companies, coffee brands (see Starbucks’ careful alignment with music over the years), and the rest of the alphabet. After all, it’s much easier to sell something that isn’t already everywhere.

Eliot Van Buskirk is the editor of An award-winning columnist, Van Buskirk has covered digital music since 1997 for CNET, Wired, and now; is the author of two books for McGraw-Hill; and can be heard regularly on NPR and other outlets.